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Vanessa Jacobs (The Restory) and Claire Bergkamp (Stella McCartney) discuss sustainability

Do Sustainability in Fashion Directives Come Straight From The Top? FarFetch Lays It Bare On Behalf Of Luxe

The platform that sells you your favourite Luxury brands wants to make them last, too. For reasons of sustainability…

Who buys Luxury? The Rich? Naturally. The Aspirational? Certainly. The foolish? Quite often. The rest of us? In global-environmental-damage-inflicting amounts, it turns out.

Wealthy fashion-lovers are people who love to live life by their own rules, but this indefinable, indefatigable and, by and large, likeable bunch, are not always as equally renowned for their sense of decency, decorum and tact.

Perhaps they should be. Critics of the fashionable and well-dressed collective (dressing well needn’t cost the earth and can pay big dividends, it should be noted) often round on the industry’s animal rights, environmental, or to use modern parlance, “sustainability” issues.

Especially the wealthy boutique brands, you would think? They are the fashion equivalent of an overpaid, blinkered Minnesota dentist big-game hunting lions in the African Savannah; existing in a vacuum into which a sense of good taste, ethics, and respect for the values of others values have simply never permeated?

 

Not necessarily. So-called boutique luxury brands often get it in the neck for breaching ethical codes of conduct around the materials they source and use, transportation, manufacturing ethics and how much they are prepared to pay workers, when, in fact, they are head and shoulders ahead of the competition.

This was a point driven home in last week’s return of an increasingly popular and successful Fashhack vs Farfetch; a series of salon style debates about the future of fashion, and the role that technology – and nifty entrepreneurial types – can play in creating change.

A series that began when much-admired startup martyr and champion of budding “fash-tech” disruptors Marina Atarova brought her influence, and brand, #FashHack London to bear on the boutique-fashion-brand-aggregator FarFetch. The London and Lisbon headquartered FarFetch, created by CEO Jose Neves, first joined the startup “Unicorn” ranks, then received a minority investment from establishment “incumbent” Chanel, before launching an IPO last year, at a valuation of $6.2bn. Shares jumped 57% on the company’s first day of trading.

FarFetch, to its credit, is overtly aware of its responsibility not just to churn out sales whilst eliminating, erm, churn, not just to “suit and boot” the fashion conscious masses, but to educate, inform, and equip them with a sense of moral purpose and empower them with knowledge. Fashion may be a personal crusade for most of us, but the industry itself is on a Personnel crusade…searching for sustainability evangelists.

On Wednesday night, we finally got the opportunity to listen to, and pick the brains of “them what know”: Claire Bergkamp, for example, Worldwide Director of Sustainability and Innovation at Stella McCartney; Dr Sally Uren, OBE, Chief Executive of Forum For The Future: Vanessa Jacobs, Founder of Fashion aftercare and repair studio The Restory; and from FarFetch itself, Tom Berry, Director of Sustainable Business.

All moderated by the redoutable, wise and multi-client online retail guru Ian Jindal.

But first, a brief intro from Stephanie Phair, Farfetch’s Chief Strategy Officer, who joined Marina and co. to outline how FarFetch actively looks to build bridges with the local community. And not just in and around upmarket Old Street, or Lisbon; where the locals are mainly comprised of meeja veterans and budding fashion label denizens, and bars buzz with life and teem with disruptive ideas; but all over the world.

FarFetch wants the public to know it has a good side, to go with its edgy persona. Refreshingly, the brand is able to successfully communicate that without sounding insincere or paying lip service, by being honest and open, and by tapping up some its famous mates from around the world of Luxury fashion.

Phair spoke briefly about how a platform for luxury goods; a “LuxTech” company, no less, wanted to build bridges back to the community. She announced the company’s move into shared content, with the launch of a new content community to work alongside the company’s renowned startup incubator, Dream Assembly, now in its second year, after a successful first cohort graduated in September.

And besides content, Phair emphasised the responsibility the firm feels to “move the needle on innovation and fashion for good.” The response, Phair noted, has been “overwhelming” to date. Could it be improved through the grilling of a panel by Jindal and a one hundred-plus strong audience of fashion professionals?

Marina Atarova, owner at FashHack, kicks off the evening at Farfetch’s offices in Old Street

Marina Atarova, owner at FashHack, kicks off the evening at Farfetch’s offices in Old Street

It could. For starters we learned from Jindal that in 2015 the startup sector sold nearly $100bn worth of luxury goods around the world. On average, these clothes would be worn between 7-10 times during their lifetime. Before being discarded. The definition of unsustainable. Dye used in colouring clothing is allegedly responsible for 20% of all freshwater pollution. Doing more harm overall than the entire global coal industry.

It’s not pretty, Tom Berry agreed. Fashion’s sustainability model “is broken” and FarFetch must seize the opportunity not just to repair, but to recontextualise its entire offering in this regard. According to Berry, it’s about “building a cleaner industry, helping clients to buy better, and allowing the industry to explore more circular business models.” Presumably he refers to circles of the virtuous, rather than the vicious variety.

But implicit in some of Berry’s remarks were the demands that FarFetch must make on its partners, the boutique brands, to be better aware, more responsible and provide maximum accountability. FarFetch tentacles’ only stretch so far. The firm can, for example, try to sell with greater accuracy and an enhanced user-experience, thereby minising returns potential, which means less clothes being couriered, reducing the carbon footprint.

If that sounds oblique, it’s worth stating the obvious here: the fashion industry is about who you know. Today’s Vogue intern is tomorrow’s global sustainability ambassador or chief marketing officer at an ecommerce startup. If that sounds cliquey and unfair, it’s worth remembering that the debate around fashion gets hotter and more impactful the closer you get to its centre. It is natural that those with the strongest arguments, best ideas,  and the ability to make things happen stick around, swapping positions like Ministers in Parliament – one minute a foreign affairs expert, the next an environmental campaigner.

All of which means that most people within the fashion industry are doing – have been doing – their bit for sustainability – have known about it for years…decades, even. The more pertinent question is perhaps: are you doing yours?

An example. Dr Uren created Forum For The Future to “accelerate the process” of “solving the complex challenges surrounding sustainability”, but, crucially, Dr Uren trusts her fellow fashion industry colleagues. She goes way back with Claire Bergkamp, for example, commenting that they were both “working on sustainability before it was even called sustainability…assessing the impact (of fashion on ecosystems) and trying to make the best decisions for the future.”

Farfetch X FashHack in full flow discussing efforts to make the world of fashion sustainable

Farfetch X FashHack in full flow discussing efforts to make the world of fashion sustainable

What’s good for the goose, in fashion circles, tends to be good for the gander. Fashion has long known about, and sought to reduce, the environmental damage that it causes. It’s not the perception inside the industry that needs to change, in fact, but the perception on the outside. On the high street, at the mall. If we’re honest, how much time do we really spend considering the ecological impact of our fashion choices as we dash around Levis or Burberry on a Saturday afternoon, trying to find the perfect outfit for next week’s fundraiser?

Probably not enough. A quick show of hands on the night revealed that many of us would be reluctant to “shop sustainably” if it meant paying a 25% premium. That is worth a moment’s reflection. At just 25% more, we baulk as buyers? Over the long term it is one less purchase per year, or paying the clothes we do have a little more TLC, perhaps?

Vanessa Jacobs is big on the latter, having setup The Restory as an “on demand solution for the restoration of shoes and bags.” Using artisanal skills, tricks and techniques Jacobs’ firm are on a mission to keep your favourite bag, heels or loafers in better condition for longer.

By “standardising the unstandardisable”, i.e. old-fashioned word alert here, repairing goods, we can save money, and stop somebody digging up some sacred ground, felling a life-giving tree or skinning a cute furry animal (or crocodile) in order to make you a brand new bag with a zip that works this time.

Simples? Not quite. As Stella McCartney’s sustainability guru, Claire Bergkamp has a big responsibility not to let this “uber-woke”, sensitive and eco-macculate brand lose sight of its principles in the hunt for profits. But tech in and of itself is not the answer, Bergkamp believes. “Tech can help us, but it can also hurt us.”

How so? Tech can take us a stage further from the reality of what we are buying. Using clicks instead of bricks desensitizes us to what may have happened during the sourcing and creation of the product we coveted.

Our product duly arrives, but we are not aware that a lot of good work takes place behind the scenes. Stella created an alternative, sustainable form of leather in the early noughties for example. She wasn’t forced to do it by anybody, she did it because it is what she and the brand believe in.

In response to criticism from ignorant outsiders, Bergkamp simply said “bring on the trolls”. We are more sustainability minded than you and we know it and we can prove it. As rallying cries go, it was bolshy, yet sure footed.

But things can be bad. The cotton industry came up time and again. How to replace cotton, how to manage cotton farming, how to make sure the “farmers” are not supposed to be at school learning to read, write and add up rather than to sew as if their lives depended on it. Tragically, they may well do if things don’t change.

FarFetch CSO Stephanie Phair holds court as Director of Sustainable Business Tom Berry limbers up

FarFetch CSO Stephanie Phair holds court as Director of Sustainable Business Tom Berry limbers up

In Pakistan the cotton growing industry was described by one panellist as “state mandated slavery.” But Pakistani politicians, no doubt, would have a different view. It was telling to hear Dr Uren absolving her fashion friends of much of the blame. Fashion is ahead of the curve, fashion is one of the better industries. Fashion, in other words, is not made up of blood diamond harbouring, tantrum throwing Naomi Campbell and coke addict Kate Moss-a-likes. Look in the mirror, and wince as you may see something more akin to a person of that persuasion.

Fashion is, after all, about the search for enlightenment – a move away from the troglodyte towards the sophisticate. Like religion in many ways, fashion wants us to drag our minds out of the gutter and contemplate a higher visage – if only because it happens to swishing and sashaying its way down the catwalk. A few feet higher, is still higher – and fashion, like life, is a game of feet and inches, and it’s best to be upwardly mobile.

There was much more besides the above under the microscope at Farfetch last Wednesday. What’s clear is that the brand whose existence is dictated by the success of other brands has decided to take on the role of industry spokesperson, mixing and matching high-calibre personalities with industry veterans and yes, even us, the public, to create a new kind of ecommerce citizen that is clued up, empowered, and even leaves the house from time to time to get a physical and intellectual fix of their favourite pursuit.

Maybe fashion is no longer fashion as we have experienced it. Perhaps, from now on, it should simply be called “sustainable fashion”. The debate is there to be had. And now you know where its being had. And “being had” used to have negative connotations. As we are slowly being guided towards the light, we find ourselves locked in a kind of Orpheus and Eurydice moment.

Don’t look back. Keep your eyes on the prize. And yea, we will follow you, although it may not feel like it to you at times.

What do you think?